Daily Book Excerpt: Adult fiction:
Bad Behavior: Stories – by Mary Gaitskill – a short story collection – I’ll excerpt from the sixth story today: ‘Secretary’.
‘Secretary’. of course, was made into a film. It’s hard to picture any of Gaitskill’s stories being made into films (especially American films which can be so hypocritical about sex. By cramming everything into the PG-13 rating, to appeal to teenagers, it ensures that the views of sex will be prurient and dirty-minded. So the ratings system dooms any honestly sexual film from the start.) Kudos to the studio who let 8 Mile, for example, get an R-rating. The rating of that film sent a very clear message about who it was for. He has armies of tweens who adore him, but that rating left them out of the picture. 8 Mile NEEDED that rating, it would have suffered under a PG-13 rating, it couldn’t have been as honest as it needed to be. And it still made 40 million bucks in its opening weekend. Kudos to the studio execs at Focus Features who let Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution go out with the dreaded NC-17 rating. Good, to those willing to take a risk. in order to maintain the integrity of the film.
I suppose Secretary could be described as “out there” although I personally DON’T find it “out there”. The movie was quite startling, because it didn’t treat S&M as though it were a problem that needed to be solved, or as emblematic of abuse, or that she was a sicko who needed treatment. The film is still Hollywood-ized a bit, with the ending (although quite effective, in context of the film) and I am sure Gaitskill saw the final product and had a nice chuckle to herself about it. To my taste, the film works wonderfully on its own. And where the movie veers off into its own entity )her being a “cutter”, her in the wedding dress at the end, her being let out of an institution, etc.) – all of that stuff ends up adding to the overall narrative push.
The original story is much bleaker than the film. She does not get the release that the movie provides her. It ends up being a weird little episode between her and her boss that detaches her even more from reality, but that’s okay, because she prefers to be detached from reality. In the film, the sado-masochistic relationship with her boss is her way IN to a more integrated and full emotional life. It is her way out of being dominated by her parents. It is her ticket to healing, growth, and … well, love. Gaitskill “gets” S&M – make no mistake – she writes about it with convincing clarity and coldness. She doesn’t see it as deviant, just something that certain people are into… so what that some chick likes to be humiliated? If it works for her, whatever.
But as always, it’s not that simple. Gaitskill also gets that there are lines. People do have lines that should not be crossed, and the lines are different for each person. What is “too far”? How would you know?
Secretary is about a tentative unspoken exploration of those uneasy questions.
Our narrator is damaged. Passive, dominated by her parents, doesn’t have much going on. And this nutjob of a lawyer (he’s way more of a nutjob in the story, believe it or not!!) SEES her. He SEES her in a way she has never been seen.
And, as we know from science, we are changed when we are observed. We can’t help it.
EXCERPT FROM Bad Behavior: Stories – by Mary Gaitskill – ‘Secretary’.
The next day I made another mistake. The intimacy of the previous day seemed to make the mistake even more repulsive to him because he got madder than usual. I wanted him to fire me. I would have suggested it, but I was struck silent. I sat and stared at the letter while he yelled. “What’s wrong with you?”
“I’m sorry,” I said.
He stood quietly for a moment. Then he said, “Come into my office. And bring that letter.”
I followed him into his office.
“Put that letter on my desk,” he said.
“Now bend over so that you are looking directly at it. Put your elbows on the desk and your face very close to the letter.”
Shaken and puzzled, I did what he said.
“Now read the letter to yourself. Keep reading it over and over again.”
I read: “Dear Mr. Garvy: I am very grateful to you for referring …” He began spanking me as I said “referring”. The funny thing was, I wasn’t even surprised. I actually kept reading the letter, although my understanding of it was not very clear. I began crying on it, which blurred the ink. The word “humiliation” came into my mind with such force that it effectively blocked out all other words. Further, I felt that the concept it stood for had actually been a major force in my life for quite a while.
He spanked me for about ten minutes, I think. I read the letter only about five times, partly because it rapidly became too wet to be legible. When he stopped he said, “Now straighten up and go type it again.”
I went to my desk. He closed the office door behind him. I sat down, blew my nose and wiped my face. I stared into space for several minutes, every now and then dwelling on the tingling sensation in my buttocks. I typed the letter again and took it into his office. He didn’t look up as I put it on his desk.
I went back out and sat, planning to sink into a stupor of some sort. But a client came in, so I couldn’t. I had to buzz the lawyer and tell him the client had arrived. “Tell him to wait,” he said curtly.
When I told the client to wait, he came up to my desk and began to talk to me. “I’ve been here twice before,” he said. “Do you recognize me?”
“Yes,” I said. “Of course.” He was a small, tight-looking middle-aged man with agitated little hands and a pale scar running over his lip and down his chin. The scar didn’t make him look tough; he was too anxious to look tough.
“I never thought anything like this wouold ever happen to me,” he said. “I never thought I’d be in a lawyer’s office even once, and I’ve been here three times now. And absolutely nothing’s been accomplished. I’ve always hated lawyers.” He looked as though he expected me to take offense.
“A lot of people do,” I said.
“It was either that or I would’ve shot those miserable blankety-blanks next door and I’d have to get a lawyer to defend me anyway. You know the story!”
I did. He was suing his neighbors because they had a dog that “barked all goddamn day.” I listened to him talk. It surprised me how this short conversation quickly restored my sensibility. Everything seemed perfectly normal by the time the lawyer came out of his office to greet the client. I noticed he had my letter in one hand. Just before he turned to lead the client away, he handed it to me, smiling. “Good letter,” he said.
When I went home that night, everything was the same. My life had not been disarranged by the event except for a slight increase in the distance between me and my family. My behind was not even red when I looked at it in the bathroom mirror.
But when I got into bed and thought about the thing, I got excited. I was more excited, in fact, than I had ever been in my life. That didn’t surprise me, either. I felt a numbness, I felt that I could never have a normal conversation with anyone again. I masturbated slowly, to put off the climax as long as I could. But there was no climax, even though I tried for a long time. Then I couldn’t sleep.